- With changing temperature and rainfall profiles due to climate change, there are chances of new diseases emerging. This is especially so when coupled with the stress of wild animals, already confronted with shrinking habitats, transmitting diseases to humans with whom they are in greater contact now.
- The uncertainty that the current COVID-19 pandemic has caused and the uncertainty of climate change are different in the sense that they happen in different time scales.
- However, the uncertainties of climate change can add to those of the pandemic and make the crisis more severe and difficult to handle.
- The COVID-19 pandemic gives the world an opportunity to think, what is the economic cost if we only talked about development and did not take the environment into consideration.
Kesavan Unni caters for weddings and social events for a living. He also organises stage decorations and associated logistics for these events. He does not call himself an event manager, for that term was brought into Thrissur in Kerala, where he lives, by operators bigger than Unni. The coronavirus (COVID-19) infection has brought Unni’s income to zero in the past two months. This is the season – before the monsoon sets in Kerala – that is usually the busiest for him.
For Unni, the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a series of economic shocks that his small business had gone through since the demonetisation of November 2016. The confusion regarding goods and service tax registration put him on the bench for some time, followed by the severity of the 2018 and 2019 floods in Kerala. At his scale of operations, where one shock itself can severely affect viability, Unni is at the end of his tether, and hope.
His despondency peaked when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown for the entire country starting from midnight of March 24-25. Even though the prime minister announced a Rs. 150 billion support for medical facilities and associated needs to deal with the efforts to treat the coronavirus infected people, he did not spell out any package to help people like Unni to deal with his personal economic crisis.
The sense of uncertainty that Unni faces is shared by many across the country. The unorganised sector constitutes more than 90 percent of employment in the country. Suddenly, in the first three months of 2020, the world does not know what the coming week will hold. Even after the Finance Minister of India Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Rs. 1.7 trillion package to support those who have lost their livelihoods and in turn the already-faltering Indian economy, people like Unni are not sure if it would be of real, adequate support.
Adding to the existing uncertainty
Uncertainty is a term that is used often in climate change literature, despite the scientific progress made over the years to understand the science behind the change. The assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change express this uncertainty in terms of very low to very high scientific confidence levels.
The biggest uncertainty among them, for India, is the fact that the reliability of the monsoon itself is changing and it is becoming a string of extreme weather events. Kerala, for instance, was known for its reliable monsoons. But it had a drought in 2017, followed by devastating floods in 2018 and 2019. Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, flooded not once but many times in 2019. Also, rather unusually, there were cyclones across the Arabian Sea during the 2019 monsoon season. It is usually the Bay of Bengal that is the home to cyclones.
With changing temperature and rainfall profiles across locations due to climate change, there are chances of new diseases emerging. This is especially so when the changing climate adds to the stress of wild animals, already confronted with shrinking habitats, transmitting diseases to humans with whom they are in greater contact now. Most of the time these diseases would be restricted to limited geographical locations and would get contained soon. But some like the current coronavirus jump the local and national boundaries.
The uncertainty that the current COVID-19 pandemic has caused and the uncertainty of climate change are different in the sense that they happen in different timescales. While for the COVID-19 it is an acute uncertainty adding to the here-and-now, for climate change it is more chronic in nature. However, the uncertainties of climate change can add to those of the pandemic and make the crisis more severe and difficult to handle.
Caught in the warp and weft of globalisation
Isolating economies or infected individuals becomes difficult in a globalised world. On one hand, Indian manufacturers rue that their production cycles are affected with the lockdown in China affecting component manufacturing. On the other, the first cases of COVID-19 infection in Kerala were reported when Indian medical students returned from the Wuhan region in China.
The chain also becomes continuous. While returning, migrant labour from the Gulf countries are contributing to the number of COVID-19 positive cases in Kerala, migrant labour returning from Kerala into the other states are adding to the risk of the infection in their villages.
The manufacturers and the migrant labour are cogs in the globalisation wheel that has been rolling for the past few decades. Manufacturing is clustered in countries where production is cheaper. Thus, many products of many brands carry the “made in China” tag, whereas cheap labour flowed to where they could get work and extra income. The same model is replicated within the country, with domestic labour moving in to fill the needs in Kerala.
The economic reforms in India and the growth in the tertiary sector of the economy also turned urban centres into magnets attracting manpower from different parts of the country. While the software and related industries attracted educated youth to cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Kochi, to service their needs another army of cab drivers and food/couriers deliverers moved into the city.
There were also increasing push factors. Climate change-induced saline incursions into their agricultural fields due to rising seas and increased frequency of cyclones forced residents of Sundarbans to migrate to Kolkata and other parts of the country as labour. In the mountainous district of Nilgiris in southern Tamil Nadu the situation is interesting. While the youth from the indigenous communities are going out to urban centres in the plains to find employment, more people from the plains, having benefitted from the liberalised and globalised economy, are building their resorts and summer houses in the Nilgiris.
This seamless integration that economic reforms built is good for the economy, but they also became the channels for infection spread when the virus struck. The suburban trains of Mumbai, which carry the foot soldiers of the economy to and from their place of work, could have become the epicentre of the spread and hence had to be cancelled. In this networked situation, the entire country had to be shut down to protect from the virus. The result – the economy, which sustained this all, is going into a tailspin.
Commodification of natural resources
Access and availability of natural resources as raw material has been equally important for the globalised economy. As a result, the predominant economic framework in which India operated since 1991 was to ensure that the industry and businesses have easy access to natural resources. If an industry or plant had to be located in a natural growth forest, then the forest could be cut as long as money is deposited with the government for compensatory afforestation.
Water, a public good, was turned into a commodity early on. In the 1990s, a viscose factory located upstream of the Bhavanisagar dam in Tamil Nadu took water from the Bhavani river and dumped polluted outflow back into the river, thereby affecting the livelihoods of farmers cultivating crops downstream of the dam. Bengaluru and Hyderabad, two cities that are located on plateaus, commandeered water from river valleys far away, spending money and energy to pump the water up.
When Chennai was facing water scarcity in 2019, water was diverted to the city from agricultural farms on the edge of the metropolis. While the city authorities managed to desalinate seawater and supply households, those without water connections in the slums had to pay heavily to supplement what they got from the city corporation tankers.
So was it with the land. Forested lands were fragmented for highways and railway lines. While mines ate forests from the insides, tourism infrastructure ate from the edges. More land at the edge of the forests was converted for agriculture. Large institutions with their elephant trenches and electric fences obstructed the path of the pachyderm herds. With increasing human-wildlife interaction there are more chances of zoonotic diseases transmitting from animals to humans.
Changing climate moved biodiversity packets upwards into the hills. In the Nilgiris, the upper plateau is becoming warmer, bringing bonnet macaques up from the lower altitudes. In the hills of Wayanad – also a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – there are reports of the zoonotic Kyasanur forest disease, otherwise known as monkey fever, even as Kerala deals with the COVID-19 infection.
It all comes together
If without the lockdown the COVID-19 is expected to spread in a geometric progression, the halt of economic activities has also hit people like Kesavan Unni on a similar scale. It is a time when the environmental consequences of economic policy, combined with the uncertainty of climate change, add to the impact of the pandemic. It is like facing a tidal surge of a cyclonic nature.
For decades the question asked was what would be the economic costs if the environment was given more importance over development. The COVID-19 pandemic gives the world an opportunity to think about what is the economic cost if we only talked about development and did not take the environment into consideration.
Just as how the coronavirus infection attacks the old and those with other health problems, its economic impact also affects most those who are financially weak and have been battered by earlier crises. A healthier economic system that reduces its adverse impact on the environment will provide better resilience to Indian society to deal with this crisis, and those in the future.
If frequent washing of hands is a must to break the chain of coronavirus infection, then there isn’t much that can be expected from a family living in the margins of Chennai city and paying ten rupees for a plastic pot of water. Especially so when the family does not know how long they would be without an income.
Banner image: A usually congested, Arcot Road in Chennai, lies empty during the pan India lockdown. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.